Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
It's been hard keeping up to date on this thing. I was quite busy in my travels in Cambodia, so I haven't had much of a chance to update.
Anyway, I spent only 2 nights in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I basically stayed in my hotel once it got dark as it's a little too dangerous to go out by yourself at night due to risk of an armed robbery--or so I've heard. Phnom Penh is quite poor, and also quite dirty, but still has some character to it, and is still developing.
There were only 2 things I wanted to see in Phnom Penh, Teul Slung Prison and the Killing Fields at Choeng Ek. Back in the 70s, a brutal regime took over, known here as the Pol Pot Regime (aka the Khmer Rouge), with Pol Pot as the leader. Once they took over, they took basically anyone who was a threat to the regime, especially educated people, and held them prisoner, tortured them, turned them into soldiers, or executed them. I have to say it was quite a somber day seeing all this stuff.
My first stop was the prison. This is where they held a lot of prisoners from Phnom Penh. Inside are photos of all the victims, instruments of torture, the cells where prisoners were held, skulls of the victims, and interrogation rooms. The place used to be an elementary school before it became a prison. Words can't express the way you feel in a place like this, and it's hard to comprehend how one human being can do these kinds of things to other human beings. The soldiers had brainwashed young teenagers into believing their parents were evil, and that the regime would take good care of the children, who would be turned into soldiers, and went so far as to kill their own parents. Others were given a choice, become a soldier or be executed.
Many of the victims (over 8,000) were taken to a place called Choeng Ek, today known as the killing fields. This was my second stop. Several victims were brought here each day to be executed, and mass graves were later dug up after the regime had ended. A monument now holds the skulls and a few bones of those who were executed, including the clothing that was found. It was truly a sad, moving moment, for lack of better words. Sadly, many of the leaders and soldiers were not brought to justice, some still roam the lands of Cambodia freely. And the tragedy still continues with landmines, especially in the north. I've lost count of the number of people I've seen with missing limbs, including both children and adults.
After Phnom Penh, it was on to happier things as I made my way to Siem Reap, the resting point from which you access the mother of all temples---Angkor Watt. This is a massive, massive hindu temple built by the Khmer rouge (not the same as that used by the Pol Pot regime) beginning in the 9th century A.D. In its day, it served as the capital of Cambodia and was symbolic of the grandeur and glory of the empire, as well as a place of devout worship.
The temple is several square kilometres and to see most of it cannot be done in one day. Angkor Watt is the main attraction here, but there are several temples surrounding it. The first day, I got up at 4:30 am to head out and catch the sunrise, which would provide an excellent photo op. I had promised myself that I would not go into this temple this day as I was saving it for later (see the smaller ones first so you don't get too templed out). I can't explain the feeling of when I first saw it though. It looks 2 dimensional at first, and as you walk down the causeway, it turns 3 dimensional and you become aware of its symmetry and complexity. To build something like this would have been quite a feat in its time, and I still can't imagine how it was possible--the manpower and skill it must have taken. It literally blew me away. You're literally wowing all the way to the front of the temple. Tempting as it was to go inside, I turned around and went back to my tuk tuk driver (motorcycle with a carriage attached to the back that I hired for the day).
We stopped for coffee and breakfast before heading out to a place called Kbal Speal. The highlight here is the river of a thousand lingas (statues devoted to the hindu gods). Most of the statues aren't there anymore, but you can see several carvings on the rocks and in the water. It was extremely hot by now, even for so early in the morning, and you couldn't drink enough water. This area is also surrounded by landmines, but trails are clearly marked so there is no danger to tourists.
After Kbal Speal, we went to a temple called Bantay Srea. It's being restored, but this had the most intricately carved figures and pictures on the walls, the entrances, and the windows. I've never seen such intricate detail--these were skilled artisans in their time. And this temple is believed to have been built by a woman.
The final temple was called Ta Prom--this one is left unrestored because they want to show tourists the power of the jungle, and how the temple has been taken over by nature, with massive trees and roots growing in and around the temple, destroying it as it goes. This was also a spot where part of Tomb Raider (Sure wish I'd seen the movie now) was filmed. I saw the tree where Angelina Jolie went down into some kind of hole.
Location: Saigon, Vietnam
I made it to Saigon with no hassles--a smooth trip all the way. I'm going to put all the events in this one entry. Basically, I did a lot of chilling out, eating some great meals, drinking a few beers, sharing some stories with other foreigners, and seeing some museums and of course the highlight--the Cu Chi tunnels.
Saigon definitely had a different vibe than Hanoi--much busier but also more laid back and the people are friendlier. I was getting annoyed by the constant peddling. "You want to buy book?" "Moto, Moto?" "Lighter? Sunglasses? Marijauna?" Even when you're outside sitting at a restaurant eating they hassle you. In one sitting you're approached an average of 10 times at least. By the end of it, I wouldn't even acknowledge anyone was there--seemed to do the trick. The traffic I'd say is much worse than Hanoi--motorcycles everywhere! And again, I was walking into the traffic.
I spent a day touring the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace. The War Museum was pretty interesting, lots of sad stuff, but also a lot of it propaganda. Here, they really make the Americans look bad (the Viet Cong--ie. communists). They showed pictures of torture, execution, and victims of Agent Orange, the defoliant that was sprayed over Central and South Vietnam by the American army. The effects of Agent Orange are still very visible in Vietnam today, as I saw on the motorcycle tour when I saw acres of land destroyed by the toxin. You can also see victims of it out on the street. And then there were the victims of land mines. I was able to meet one who lost an arm and a leg because of a land mine, also damaged one of his eyes. Couldn't help but feel a bit somber after this visit to the museum. It's strange to think that this only happened just before I was born--this is very recent history.
The Reunification Palace is where the Southern Vietnamese government held meetings and could hide in the bunker below the palace, which we were able to see. The bunker can withstand 2 tonnes of bombs at a time. Just before the Viet Cong surrendered, they took over the palace, forcing out the Southern Vietnamese officials. The South Army drove two army tanks through the front gates on April 30th, 1975, forcing the Viet Cong to surrender, thus putting an end to all the fighting.
Another day I spent out at the Cu Chi tunnels, used by the Viet Cong to move about underground while remaining protected from the enemy. Men, women, and children of the Cu Chi town contributed to the Viet Cong effort, using the tunnels and fighting by night while still working in the fields to feed themselves by day. The tunnels were maybe 60cm X 80cm, very small and not well ventilated, and extremely hot. I saw bomb craters from the American bombs, trenches, the tunnels themselves (a network that spans 200 kms), booby traps set up for the enemy, and sniper pits linked to the tunnels. And at the end, I got to shoot an AK47, the type of gun that most terrorists prefer because of it's durability, efficiency, and capabilities and Russian manufactured. I shot 5 bullets and hit my target 3 out of 5 times (not bad!). I didn't realize how incredibly loud these things are. I'm sure that hearing must be a problem for some of these Vietnam vets who would have heard it constantly.
Before the Cu Chi tunnels, we stopped at a temple of a religion known as Caodai. This religion mixes many of the major ones: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Muslim. There are about 2 million followers in Vietnam. Quite an interesting scene seeing all of them mix together for mass. In the temple, they have 9 steps (each step representing the path to Nirvana for Buddhism). You may only sit on the step of the status you currently are, be it 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on. The Caodai pope sits on the 9th level. Currently, there is no pope. The last one fled to Cambodia during the Vietnam war and passed away there, and there is no current replacement yet.
I was feeling a bit homesick in Saigon, been out traveling for awhile now, so I decided it was time to move to the next country (also the budget plays a factor in this too). Today I left for Cambodia, to the capital city of Phnom Phen. I'd heard all kinds of things about how weirded out I would be by the city, and to watch my back here. Everything's gone pretty good so far and I'm definitey not weirded out. Yes, it's much poorer here than any other countries I've been, and there is garbage everywhere (but I saw this in China too), but it's ok. Got myself a nice little hotel room for $5 U.S.--a great deal. Things are even cheaper here than in Vietnam. They do use Cambodian riel here for currency, but it's not worth much, so they mostly deal in U.S. dollars. It's nice to use a dollar system that I'm used to again.
Some lasting thoughts on Vietnam, I thoroughly enjoyed the country, had a great time all the way and would gladly go back. I didn't get to do the Mekong Delta, which I would love to do someday, as well as Phu Quoc island, a little island oasis that is not very touristy yet. The people are so friendly, especially in the south. Saigon and Hanoi are both extremely busy cities with crazy traffic, but I enjoyed both and would gladly return. There doesn't seem to be much resentment from the people themselves toward the Americans, though I can't say for sure about the government. I did hear some negative comments from locals about the communist government for their part in the war and for how they are dealing with it today. Vietnam is a definite must see for those traveling SE Asia.
Location: Saigon, Vietnam
Happy birthday Tim and Tom. I'll have a beer for you (oh, better make that 2). CHEERS!
The last few days has been awesome, once again. I have to say that Vietnam has been great all the way. I took a bus to Nha Trang (another popular beach resort, which I recommend, but didn't get a chance to stay there), where I transferred to another. Remember the cockroach story? Well, I had a worse encounter. We stopped at a pit stop along the way to Nha Trang. I happened to bump into an English fellow I met up in Sapa, and as we were chatting, someone pointed out that something was on my back. Yep, you guessed it, a giant cockroach. These things are haunting me. I tried to flick it off, but it stuck to me. This thing was bigger than the one in the hotel. A Vietnamese girl picked it off of me--just grabbed it like you were picking up a ball. She then proceeded to taunt me with it. And I also noticed that it was a flying cockroach to boot! Have I mentioned how much I hate those things?
Anyway, arrived in Mui Ne on the 18th, and it was heaven. Okay, I have to admit, Thailand and the Perhentian Islands are certainly better, but this was still pretty prime. My first night I stayed in a bungalow, complete with private beach out front, a nice courtyard with hammocks all over, and a nice, clean room. The weather was sweltering hot. Met a Canadian couple, Brahim and Isabelle. Finally, Canadians in Vietnam! They were from Quebec. Also met a girl from Australia who I hung out with for the evening for drinks. She would leave the next morning. The French Candians recommended a better hotel that was in the middle of everything, so the next morning I checked out of the bungalow and went to have a look at this place. Pretty damn nice I have to stay. No beach front, but the price was a steal--$9 for a room like new, and was the best one I've seen in Vietnam so far. We hung out on the beach all day soaking up the sun and the water. So many people were out kite surfing (think of a big, big kite that lets you surf on the water and take huge leaps into the air, coasting a bit before you drop). I wanted to try it, but I also just wanted to lay there and relax all day--I'm holding off on a lot of beach stuff until I get to my island paradise in Malaysia.
We topped the evening off with an excellent seafood dinner that consisted of a huge plate of prawns and rice. After that, it was time for cocktails at the beach bar. Isabelle left early while Brahim and I stayed out until the wee hours of the morning--we were having too much fun and we took our drinks on the beach and made a fire. A nice welcome breeze was blowing off the ocean, a nice break from the heat.
Was a bit hungover the next morning (now the 20th of March), and slept in until 11. Got up, had a great breakfast, and rented a motorbike to get out to the famous sand dunes. About 10 kms outside of Mui Ne are some sand dunes, the red sand dunes and the white sand dunes. I was a bit leary of renting the bike due to the traffic, but once I was on the road, it wasn't a problem. You could tell it was desert like landscape here--kind of strange really, but awesome nonetheless. I arrived at the red sand dunes to be accosted by a bunch of kids. Three young boys jumped on my motorbike and said they'd take me to the white sand dunes (for a fee of course, which I already knew, but also knew this would be an experience, so I went for it). The other kids were mad because I didn't choose them. So here I am, with 3 kids and myself crammed on this small motorcycle (really though, it's quite common for the Vietnamese people--I've seen as many as 5 on a motorbike). Let me tell ya, it's much harder to control and keep the balance with that many people. Anyway, they told me where to go and we got there no problem.
These dunes were a sight to see--can I say sand oasis?? You'll just have to see the pictures because I can't really put it into words. Anyway, you have these huge sand hills, which you can even go sand sledding on! I didn't take advanatage of this because I wanted to try something different. I went to the top of a dune, and I took huge jumps down it. You couldn't jump down a regular hill like that or you'd break your legs, but with this you land in the soft sand and you just sink. It was awesome! It was like flying..... almost. If you're ever in Mui Ne in Vietnam, don't miss the sand dunes. Unfortunately, I ran out of time by the time I got to the red dunes as I had to get the motorbike back. The kids let me off, and I paid them a fee that I thought was good enough. They of course wanted double. I simply said, "No way!" to which they were getting upset. Finally, I explained in broken English that I didn't ask for the little tour and I would have been perfectly happy to do it on my own--they were the ones who chose to hop on the bike, and I was quite stern. Two of them were fine, but one got really angry with me, to which I drove off. Sometimes, the hassle can be a bit frustrating, but it's worth the experience.
I went out for dinner with the French Canadian couple, and 2 other French Canadian couples who joined us. They were speaking French most of the time, so I had to tune in my listening skills and I did use a little French too. I could understand more than I could speak though. Was an excellent evening but after the late night before we all turned in early (if you call midnight early).
Next morning, the 21st, I checked out of the hotel, and we went to the beach before I would leave for Saigon at 1:30. Mui Ne is an awesome resort--recommended if you want laid back and not too much of a party scene. Nha Trang is the beach to go to apparently, if you're looking for the party resort.
HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY GLENDA!!
Yes, Happy birthday for March 15th! Sorry so late, but I didn't have any internet access for the past few days. Hope you had a great day!
Love from your brother, Scott